When you walk into a McDonald's in the Summit City now, you don't even have to give someone your order.
Self-service touch screens allow you to scan pages with the swipe of a finger, select what you want and pay with a credit card or your phone – another technological upgrade from the past decade.
If that isn't enough, you can actually choose what you want before you leave the house through the fast-food giant's mobile app, pay for it and have the order started as soon as your car tires hit the parking lot. Then you can pick it up inside or an employee will deliver it to your parking spot.
Nearly all the big names in fast food have followed suit, but it is not just those big chains that are taking orders from the cloud. Several local establishments have gotten into or are working to get into the app game.
Mitchell's Sports Bar & Grill on Jefferson Boulevard recently launched an app that can be downloaded from the restaurant's website. Owner Todd Smith says doing so was kind of inevitable.
“I was talking to my management and employees about trying to get our message out to customers through social media and that was the answer,” Smith said. “We wanted to let them know about daily specials, features, concerts – pretty much anything, and this was the best way to do it.”
Smith comes from a restaurant family and has seen trends come and go over the years. He says he used to be one of the biggest radio advertising purchasers around, but those days are gone with the growth in popularity of streaming services and podcasts.
“Technology, so much has changed so much in the past few years,” said Smith, adding that he now owns a digital sign company that is another example of change. “This is how we stayed up on the changes in life. Everyone is on their phone now so it just makes sense.”
Smith's app is handled by a firm run by one of his former longtime employees, Kristin Coppolino, who started KC Consultants in September 2017 after more than 15 years working for Smith. Coppolino used to handle all of Smith's social media but now handles marketing and bookkeeping for four businesses.
Though social media seems like a new trend, Coppolino has seen parts of it become outdated as the world changes.
“Facebook was doing very well for many years, but a lot of people are now going to Instagram and Snapchat,” the 36-year-old said. “For the younger generation, it is all Instagram and Snapchat.”
Coppolino has also seen recent growth in Google ads and knows the next trend is likely just around the corner.
“It's all about capturing (customers') info,” she said. “Once you have that you can get the word to them and make it so they don't forget you.”
Umi Grill, 2912 Getz Road, was one of the first locally owned restaurants to incorporate touch-screen tablets as menus when it opened in January 2017. And its all-inclusive digital menus are even more advanced than some chains, which only have a portion of offerings on them.
According to general manager Tiercell Schwartz, the menus are a real plus that not only allow customers to see beautiful and enticing photos of dishes, it allows the restaurant to market within its own walls by highlighting specials and features on prominent pages.
“We update it every month,” said Schwartz, who calls himself “more of a visual person” who loves the tablets. “I can give (customers) a lot of information about those things and help educate them.”
“It's not just about food, it is about the experience,” he added.
Schwartz adds that although those menus better educate the masses, his staff is still required to taste menu items to educate themselves and they are tested on it.
Bill Bean has been in the restaurant game more than two decades here and, especially given he got back into the business heavily about a year and a half ago after a bit of a layoff, he is learning something new every day.
The new point-of-sale systems restaurants can purchase are more important than ever, said Bean, who owns Bill's Smokehouse on Washington Center Road, The Pub at 1802 on Spy Run and Park Place on Main.
“From my cellphone, I can pull up in the middle of a shift and see our sales that period, who is clocked in and pretty much anything I want,” Bean said. “I can pull up the cameras and get a feel of what is going on at any of the restaurants.”
But no matter how far technology advances, you cannot remove the people aspect, Bean added. Coppolino emphasized the same.
Customers still matter most
Though apps engage customers and allow restaurants to communicate with them, when it comes to making reservations or reserving a spot in line, there is a human element that still comes into play.
“You have to have someone watching all of it in the restaurant,” Coppolino said, adding that she forwards as many messages and requests from apps she spots to at least two people at each restaurant she works with, but even that isn't foolproof. “You have to be careful how you work things so those don't get lost.”
For Bean, the technology has given customers – another part of the people aspect – more power.
“In my opinion, it is still true today as it was years and years ago – it is people's recommendations that still have the biggest impact on a restaurant,” he said. “If they had a good experience, they would tell five or six people. But if they had a bad experience, they'd tell 20.
“Today, they aren't just telling 20 friends, they are potentially telling thousands through social media.”